London’s black taxis, or ‘cabs’, are a British institution. The emblematic box-shaped black car is also one of the capital’s most famous tourist attractions. The history of London’s taxis goes back hundreds of years, but the classic cab was actually only introduced in 1958 and updated in 1987.
The official origins of London’s taxis date back to the 12th century, when the watermen on the River Thames received a royal charter. As the capital expanded under Elizabeth I, with more bridges built across the Thames, horse-drawn carriages replaced water taxis. The first licensed taxis appeared in the 17th century. The popular cabriolet, designed in 1823, gave birth to the term ‘cab’. Fifty years later, taxis were ‘racing’ around London’s cobbled streets at 17 mph. Poor passengers! Battery-powered and then motorised vehicles appeared in the 1890s.
The motorised taxi has been an important engine of social change for around a century. Historically a white working-class trade, taxi driving was originally dominated by Londoners from the East End. Then Irish and Jewish immigrants opened the driver’s door. Now immigrants from Africa and Asia are beginning to sit behind the wheel.
Lost in London
London is a maze of streets. To prevent taxi drivers getting lost, they have to learn ‘the Knowledge’: drivers have to memorise 25,000 streets and 100,000 landmarks. They spend three to four years riding the streets of London on a moped, travelling 50,000 miles. The test even includes everything on the street, such as flower stands, launderettes … and a foot-high statue of two mice eating a piece of cheese (near London Bridge.) Many drivers have an enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with navigation in birds.
Threat to Taxis
Sadly, this emblematic part of London life is now under serious threat from many sides, including the pandemic, Uber drivers, new ecological laws, and cities interested in reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists. There is actually a radical plan in London to reduce the city’s 21,000 taxis to just two hundred, subsidising these for tourists, much as Venice with its gondolas. The black taxi could soon return to its watery roots.
London’s taxis have their own culture, including a vocabulary. London has hidden courtyards with petrol stations used almost exclusively by taxi drivers. There are also cafés and canteens catering specifically for taxis, offering a traditional English breakfast all day. The city also still has thirteen cabmen’s shelters; small, green, wooden wooden huts dating from the days of horse-drawn cabs. In terms of vocabulary, we ‘hail‘ a taxi and look for ‘taxi ranks’, amongst many other expressions.